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[Intergalactic Cooking Challenge] It's chefs... in spaaaaaaaace!

Started by Zach, August 02, 2006, 06:53:53 AM

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Last evening, I ran Intergalactic Cooking Challenge for three friends, all college-aged guys who're fond of traditional role-playing. It was intended as a one-shot to introduce them to the universe while exploring as many of the core ideas as possible. In effect, this is the control group. I will be running a scenario with the same basic foundation for several older friends of the family, as they have expressed interest. My experience with running for non-gamers is limited, but other Actual Play threads that I've seen encourage me.

Play started with everyone paging through the rules and creating their primary characters while I summarized the setting: Earth had been visited by a culturally and technologically advanced race of aliens who found humanity's creations to be an eyesore to the universe. Like a silk flower, the race had existed for too long without any inner glow, but failing to decay and offer the bittersweet reflection on the lure of the finite. During talks with the aliens, it was revealed by accident that Earth's cooking was the only art form that they respected.

So the aliens did was any sane race would do: they built a stadium on the moon and invited the best of the best to prove their race's worth.

The players came up with three worthy chefs: Luigi Belmont the Pastamaster, Kata Mari the Lord of Lasagna, and Bjorn-something or other. It was a really impressive Viking name, but I have neither the memory r the umlauts to recall it.

Since the gang was not yet confident enough in their abilities to be invited to the Kitchendrome, they found themselves on the domed city on the moon trying to make ends meet. They all lived in the top floor of Mari's bakery, spending their days honing their skills. Belmont became embroiled in a high-stakes noodle duel with a passing vendor, Mari worked the shop until receiving a mysterious stranger who requested the God's Breath Divine Bread before making a hurried egress, and Bjorn went hunting for the mighty stag with which he could complete his masterpiece – venison and mead.

Initially, the players were restrained. They (with the exception of Bjorn) acted as chefs would in a realistic environment rather than one where they are larger-than-life heroes. After a few flamboyant motions and improbable comic effects on my part, they loosened up (and became louder and more willing to improvise.) The first turning point was when Belmont became embroiled in the pre-match trash talking with a noodle cart attendant. Owning nothing of a value comparable to his foe's space cruise tickets, Belmont's player looked at his hands and around the room before announcing, "I wager my three flunkies!"

This battle wasn't handled using the cooking challenge rules, as those are intended for showpiece events with judges, announcers, and the like. Besides, they require a touch of prep work (more on this later.)

Given my short amount of prep time, the initial goal was to demonstrate all of the main mechanics to the players. They had fun following what were intended as throwaway leads though, so I wasn't about to stop them. The gag anime atmosphere and task resolution system encouraged the light mood while the willingness to talk about dainty foods realized another design goal of mine (Also discussed later).

The task resolution system allows for utter failure (see the conversations regarding humor-enhancing mechanics in What a Shambles) as well as over-the-top success. While statistic/skill systems are not revolutionary, everyone was comfortable with it. In regards to cooking tasks, failure led to food literally blowing up while success would cause tears and visions in otherwise stern figures. With one exception ("I didn't really do that."), failures just lead to more silly jokes and off-the-wall rationalizations.

Eventually, Bjorn obtained the tickets that Belmont had won from the street chef. His goal was to get on board the cruise ship, wrest some a portion of the moon's last venison supply from its head chef, and return home. He brought Mari with him, who was after an autograph and trade secrets from a popular children's book author who had hidden the recipe for the God's Breath Divine Bread in her books. Upon meeting her, Mari also learned that she was a detective who was investigating a stolen ruby that was somewhere on the ship! She suspected that the ship's chef knew something about it.

Willing to be the distraction while Mari searched the chef's quarters for clues, Bjorn challenged the ship's chef to a cooking challenge. As an added inventive, a high-level judge who reported directly to the head of the alien invaders was on hand to advance the winner's career.

It was during the cooking battle that one of my major design goals was realized. Bjorn was describing a dainty fruit drink when his player's eye unfocused and he admitted, "Now that I've talked about this, I really want to try it." Although we were subsisting on pizza and cola (water in my case), the game was enabling a discourse that revitalized our palates. I have new ideas for strawberry jam that do not involve smuggling rubies, and everyone contributed ideas that we would not have normally thought about given our fondness for budget Chinese food.

The cooking battle did have its downsides, however. Although the players whose chefs were not competing took over the reins of two of the judges, they weren't quite sure how to proceed with their goals. The system works thusly: during a cooking challenge, the judges and other influential people nearby are encouraged by the dedication shown by the chefs. They have personal and professional goals (ranked in intensity) to complete interspersed with the cooking action.

Neither of the judges had many passion points to influence the arena floor with, so they kept their narational authority to a minimum on that front. The one time that the ability was used, it was to directly hinder the NPC chef, helping their out-of-game comrade.

I blame this confusion on my lack of preparedness for the battle. Since no one was interested in portraying the announcer, I took that role in addition to the opposition chef. Both roles took a large amount of running patter, so I was conflicted between demonstrating how it would work if a player had selected the announcer and cutting those parts short because it amounted to me talking to myself and sabotaging my own dice rolls. In the end I erred on the side of shortening matters for the sake of the story.

In the future, I will have (and suggest) notes for the opposition chef's suggested meal plan. Although the players will do their best to modify it, having a firm base gives a resource to cut back on reaction time when everyone expects a quick answer.

When all was said and done, the case of the missing ruby was solved, but too late. It had been smuggled through the strawberry jam (the theme ingredient) to the innocent-looking robotic judge. Leaping out of the ship, he was long gone before anything could be done. Bjorn won the contest as well as the attention of high-ups in the cooking world, but Mari did not receive his bread and Lulu's goals remained largely unresolved. Two of her minor goals bore fruit, but the major one was invalidated by Belmont's character grabbing the ruby. 

The post-game session was short, but everyone confirmed that they had a good time. They mentioned the minor snags that have been interspersed through this report, and were generally happy with the evening. It was a change of pace from their more serious campaigns, and two of them are definitely interested in pursuing the game further. The third's omission is not a warning sign yet, but I cannot recall as many comments overall from him.

I declare this one-shot a success. People laughed, had long stretches of being in-character (granted, it's easier when pop culture references can be considered in character), and talked about fine foods. The mechanics didn't fare as well as the setting/inspiration, but that can be improved upon by employing more than ten minutes of prep time.

Does anything stick out about this session? While my reflections on the session have raised points about the system, something more general may be required to spark discussion while there are so few copies of the rules circulating.

"You realize that you've been doing all of this for bread??!!"
Intergalactic Cooking Challenge is pretty slick. Also of note is the sample size.